Conflict Alerts # 362, 14 April 2021
In the news
On 11 April, the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran suffered a power blackout, causing damage to the centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Iranian media blamed it on Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.
On 12 April, Iran's Foreign Minister Javed Zarif wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General in which he called the act of targeting a "highly sensitive safeguarded nuclear facility" with "high risk" of radioactive material release as "reckless criminal nuclear terrorism" and a "grave war crime". Israeli news outlets claimed that Israel was behind the attack, though Israel officially neither confirmed nor denied its role in the attack.
On 12 April, Israel's PM Netanyahu, while not directly confirming a role, said: "I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel." On the same day, the US denied any involvement. The White House Press Secretary said: "The US was not involved in any manner".
On 13 April, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister said that the country would raise uranium enrichment levels to 60 per cent and has conveyed this to the International Atomic Energy Organisation.
Issues at large
First, the nature of the attack and the extent of the damage. Multiple accounts have been reported, ranging from a kinetic cyber-attack to a large explosion at the power supply system of the plant. The official Iranian version claims that there was a small explosion at the electricity distribution centre affecting the older generation centrifuges and that it did not stop the enrichment process. The New York Times however, based on Israeli and the US intelligence sources, claimed that "it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz's production."
Second, the attacks on Natanz in the past. The Natanz plant is the primary uranium enrichment facility of the country and has been central to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal. It has been the recipient of attacks in the past that have been attributed to Israel. This includes the cyber-attack using Stuxnet in 2007 and the fire incident in 2020.
Third, Israel's position on the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel has been a staunch opponent of the Iranian nuclear programme, and considers Iran's development of nuclear weapons as an existential threat to the country. Israel has not just been believed to target Iranian nuclear facilities, but also assassinating top Iranian nuclear scientists, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.
Fourth, the timing of the sabotage. The attack happened just a day after Iran celebrated its National Nuclear Technology Day, and President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated advanced centrifuges (capable of enriching uranium faster) at the Natanz site. The attack also coincided with the US Secretary of State Gen Llyod Austin's visit to Israel, and closely follows the conclusion of the first week of nuclear talks at Vienna between the US, Iran and the European partners of the JCPOA.
Even as Israel did not confirm its role, multiple reports, including some by Israeli Hebrew media, attribute the attack to the country. If Israel was behind the attack, then it could have had two potential motivations for the attack: first, delaying the Iranian uranium enrichment, especially after Iran unveiled new-generation centrifuges; second, to torpedo the nuclear talks happening at Vienna.
However, it is questionable whether any of these objectives will be fulfilled. Iran has shown high resilience in the last two decades despite a series of attacks. The attack has rather prompted Iran to up the ante by announcing an enrichment target of 60 per cent, inching closer to the 90 per cent weapons-grade level. Further, the attack, rather than torpedoing, may strengthen the Iranian position, which may play the victim card and use the new enrichment announcement as a bargaining chip.
Lastly, even though Iran has vowed revenge, it is unlikely to do anything significant, given its record of making calls for revenge and not following it through. The call for revenge then, like before, is to address domestic public opinion.